OPINION: What is the politest way to address a Catholic bishop?
This was one of the questions taoiseach Charles Haughey
and senior civil servants were grappling with in 1982, as shown by
State papers released this week.
The file on their deliberations
provides a window onto Ireland 30 years ago, with one senior official
recommending “My dear Lord Bishop” rather than plain old “Dear Bishop”.
Another official felt this “formal approach . . . has been overtaken by
more informal usage”.
Haughey himself was undecided on this point
but a memo notes that he “agreed generally with the more intimate form
of signing his name on a letter to a member of the hierarchy without the
word “Taoiseach” typed under it.
It’s a long way from the Pat Rabbitte school of communications.
politicians question whether churchmen have a right to stick their nose
into State affairs. This would have been incomprehensible, or simply
impractical, 30 years ago, given the sheer breadth of the Catholic
Church’s involvement in Irish society.
From today’s vantage point
such “interference” is generally perceived as a negative, but the
positives are highlighted too in the documents.
In a dark period for the
North, Catholic priests working in nationalist, no-go areas were key
intermediaries, trying to negotiate their constituency away from extreme
Even Margaret Thatcher gave them credit.
When Rev Ian
Paisley started badmouthing the Catholic Church at a meeting in June
1981, in the midst of the hunger strikes, the British prime minister
commended the bishops for their bravery.
The church’s multifaceted
role in education, community activism and social affairs was already
well documented, but what shines through the files is the level of
respect the church then received at official level and in the community
The department of foreign affairs dossier on the developing
world, for example, consisted almost entirely of reports from priests
and nuns in the missions.
A file on women’s equality saw feminists
mobilised over the dropping of Sr Stanislaus Kennedy from a health
board in July 1982. When the same activists proposed a “national women’s
talent bank”, one of the first names put forward was a nun from Co
But the State papers also shine a light on abuses of power –
small but insidious ones. Like when archbishop of Dublin Dermot Ryan
used an Easter meeting with Haughey to request (successfully, as it
turned out) that a number of bills owing to government departments –
including Posts and Telegraphs – be cancelled, and that pressure be put
on a couple of State agencies to “reduce their accounts”.
(You’d like to
see Diarmuid Martin try that one with the Minister for Communications.)
when a Catholic-run school in Co Mayo bombarded its local TD Enda Kenny
with letters from pupils demanding a “pro-life” referendum – even
though the students were too young to vote themselves. The wording on
each letter was so similar it had all the hallmarks of a homework
This was, of course, part of a bigger show of strength
by the Irish church. The “pro-life” amendment campaign was largely
driven by lay Catholics, but would not have got off the ground without
the hierarchy’s approval.
Many people who are strongly opposed to
abortion admit today the campaign was ill-conceived. More broadly, it
can be seen as the Irish Catholic Church – buoyant after the recent
visit of Pope John Paul II – fatally overplaying its hand.
evidence points to the fact that both Haughey and Garret FitzGerald
were staunchly anti-abortion, as were their parties, and the issue
mattered politically only to the extent to which it could be used as a
stick to beat the other.
But the bitter nature of the 1983 referendum
campaign, and the way “the abortion issue” contaminated the general
elections surrounding it, made politicians a lot warier of church
involvement in politics thereafter.
In another way, 1982 could be
seen as a fatal turning point for the church because Catholic morality,
in the remainder of that decade, became increasingly associated with a
particular type of sexual morality.
The files shed some light on
that evolution – as much of the correspondence on the abortion issue to
the Department of the Taoiseach carried a hysterical tone, typically
conveying sweeping allegations and innuendo.
All were dealt with
reverentially – backbench TD Enda Kenny dutifully forwarded his mailbag
to the highest office in the land – but whether that would happen today
What else do the papers tell us about 1982? Money
was scarce (like today), the State was deep in debt (ditto) and we were
super-sensitive about our image overseas (nothing changes).
year of high political intrigue, there was little recorded about
phone-tapping or financial skulduggery – but that was somewhat
The paper trail that was left behind hints nonetheless at a
political system based on wheeling and dealing, and a flexible moral
Viewed against the backdrop of more recent political events,
including the various tribunals, the overwhelming impression from the
papers is of a Republic with no particular sense of direction.
rare instance of forward thinking from that era – relating to the
“pro-life” amendment – was the decision of FitzGerald’s government to
publish the advice of its attorney general Peter Sutherland in advance
of the 1983 referendum. This was an unprecedented initiative, and
whether or not you agreed with his opinion (he was against the
amendment), its availability helped to inform public debate.
electorate would have been better informed had it been able to compare
Sutherland’s opinion to the quality of advice offered by the two other
attorneys general who worked on the amendment. Instead, we can read this
advice only 30 years later – but why?
There is a strong case for
allowing greater public scrutiny of the advice of the Office of the
Attorney General, especially in the case of referendums but perhaps also
for other important matters of public policy.
Labour should be reminded
of its pre-election pledge for greater transparency in this area,
saying in its manifesto it “will publish the attorney general’s advice
to government when it is appropriate to do so”.
Thirty years after this was first trialled, it is appropriate to let in further light.
JOE HUMPHREYS is an Irish Times journalist covering the 1982 State papers released this week